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    “A poet who makes use of a worse word instead of a better, because the former fits the rhyme or the measure, though it weakens the sense, is like a jeweler, who cuts a diamond into a brilliant, and diminishes the weight to make it shine more.”   - Horace Walpole

While every metrical poem will have a base meter to serve as its backbone, many poets often find that writing in ten-syllable iambic sentences, for example, is too limiting for their purposes, either because pure meter doesn’t provide enough variation for proper emphasis or because it quickly gets dull and tedious, or a combination of the two.

You might have noticed this limitation when you wrote your blank verse in the last lesson.  Often it occurs that there is something you want to say that simply will not work in your base meter, that you have to sound like Yoda to get your words into the proper meter, or that you feel that a different foot “feels right” in a certain place.  As Walpole is suggesting, you should never sacrifice your content simply to avoid breaking your meter or rhyme.  It is perfectly allowable to break your base structure for rhetorical effect; however, if you cannot write perfect meter, you cannot effectively deviate from that meter to achieve the utmost effect.  This is why Lesson 1’s writing assignment asked for perfect meter:  I wanted you to prove to yourself and to me that you are capable of writing precise meter before you attempt the more advanced techniques.  Now that you know what iambic pentameter looks and sounds like, and how to write it, you’re ready to expand on it.  You know how to work for your meter; it’s time to learn how to make meter work for you.

Enjambment & Caesurae

Enjambment refers to the technique of allowing a line of verse to merge with the next line--continuing a thought and effectively removing the pause that is often subconsciously added at a line break.

A caesura is the opposite:  an added pause in the middle of the line, where the reader would normally read fluidly through the feet.  The most dramatic effect of this is when a full stop is used, but it can also be done with weaker punctuation, such as a comma.

Consider this passage from Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” from which I’ve removed the line breaks:

    That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, looking as if she were alive.  I call that piece a wonder, now:  Frà Pandolf’s hands worked busily a day, and there she stands.

Can you identify the base meter?  How about the rhyme scheme?  Chances are you cannot.  This is because Browning has used both enjambment and caesurae (also pluralized as “caesuras”) to disguise his form.  This is how these lines read as they were published:

      ˘     / | ˘   / | ˘   / | ˘  / | ˘    /
    That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
      /  ˘ | ˘  / |˘   / | ˘  /||* ˘   /
    Looking as if she were alive.  I call
      ˘    / | ˘  / |˘    / || ˘   / | ˘     /
    That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
       ˘   / |˘ /|˘  / |  ˘    / |  ˘     /
    Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

* The || mark is generally used to designate a caesura, but it is not necessary to include it.

Now, even without my scansion marks, you should be able to identify the base iambic pentameter, and the rhyming couplets (we’ll go over rhyme more thoroughly later, but I assume you can at least identify a rhyme when you see or hear one).  You’ll probably also notice that the second line begins with a trochee instead of an iamb.

Metrical Substitutions

When you were writing your blank verse, you probably said to yourself at one point or another, “I really like this line, but that foot sounds more like a trochee than an iamb” or “The only way I can say what I want to say would be to put an anapest here.”  Because of the nature of the assignment, you had to rework your line in order to create iambic pentameter.  In verse, however, it is perfectly acceptable to insert feet other than your base meter, so long as you do it consciously, deliberately, and for a particular effect.  Whether the reason is for metrical onomatopoeia, emphasis, or simply to add variety, substitutions can give your poetry more life than the basic rhythm of a base meter provides.

We refer to substitutions by their position in the line and by the type of foot that is substituted--unfortunately there is no agreed-upon set of terminology for the positioning of substitutions, but we generally refer to them as “initial” (first foot of the line), “terminal” (last foot of the line), and “medial” (all feet in between).

For the most part, substitutions should be minimal.  As a general rule, you almost always want the number of base feet to be greater than any one substitution.  For example, you could insert an anapest, a trochee, and a spondee into a line of iambic pentameter, and still keep the base meter recognizable by the two iambs that remain.

Trochaic Substitution:

In iambic verse, trochaic substitutions, sudden reversals of the stresses in a foot, are by far the most common and often the most effective.  They can affect the line in a variety of ways, depending mainly on where they occur in the line.

Initial trochees following an end-stopped line are generally subtle, quiet throbs in the rhythm.  John Milton used these extensively--here are a few selected lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

       /   ˘  | ˘  / |˘  / | ˘    /  |  ˘    /
    There the companions of his fall, o'erwhelmed

      /   ˘ | ˘  / | ˘  / | ˘  /  | ˘     /
    Strongly to suffer and support our pains

    / ˘ | ˘ /|˘ /|˘   / | ˘     /
    Human imagination to such highth

      /  ˘ | ˘    /  | ˘   / |  ˘    / |  ˘   /
    Leader! the terms we sent were terms of weight

Notice that, in all of these examples, the meter immediately goes back to iambic after the initial trochee.  This will happen almost always with such a substitution, and you should learn to expect that return.

An initial trochaic substitution is more noticeable, and more powerful, when it follows enjambment:

    ˘     /  | ˘    /* |   ˘    /| ˘   ˘ |  /    /†
    And thence in Heaven called Satan, with bold words
      /  ˘  | ˘   / |˘   / | ˘     / | ˘  /
    Breaking the horrid silence, thus began:--

    /‡    ˘ | ˘   / |˘  / | ˘    /  | ˘  /
    Who, from the terror of this arm, so late
    /  ˘  | ˘   / |˘     / |  ˘   / | ˘  /
    Doubted his empire--that were low indeed

* I scanned “Heaven” as one syllable in this line, as Milton does throughout the entire text.  See below, in the section on elision, for the reason why.

† I will explain this pyrrhus-spondee combination shortly.

‡ “Who” was scanned as a stressed syllable.  Below, the section on punctuation will explain my reasoning for this.

You should be able to feel the throb of these lines as a trochee is placed where the rhythm of the previous line gives the expectation of an iamb.  This is generally used for emphasis; Milton is drawing our attention to the words “breaking” and “doubting,” making them stand out more--and thus giving them more importance--than would exist if they were part of the iambic rhythm.  Suppose Milton had instead written:

    ˘    /  | ˘    /  |   ˘    /| ˘    ˘ |  /    /
    And thence in Heaven called Satan; with bold words
    ˘   /  | ˘   / |˘   / | ˘    / | ˘  /
    He broke the horrid silence, and began:--

The purely iambic rhythm certainly does not sound the same as it did with the trochee; it doesn’t feel as much like a silence is being broken.  This kind of metrical onomatopoeia is invaluable to poetry, allowing the poet to not only tell a story, but to make the reader feel the story happening.

A trochaic substitution following a caesura generally has the same effect as an initial trochee, as in this line from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus:

    / ˘ | ˘  / | ˘  / ||  / ˘ | ˘   /
    Better it is to die, better to starve,
    ˘     / |  ˘    / |  ˘     / | ˘   / | ˘  /
    Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.

You can probably hear the “thump” in the repetition of “better” in this line more strongly than you would if Shakespeare had instead written “and better.”  The trochee after the caesura provides, as at the beginning of the line, a brief emphasis before returning to pure iambic meter.  Again, this return to iambic meter occurs nearly always when a trochaic substitution is used--even in the first line from Coriolanus, Shakespeare has two iambs and a caesura before the second trochee of the line.

In iambic meter, two trochees are almost never consecutive, but when they are, they can have a devastating effect, as in this example of my own creation (hey, there’s no law that says I have to quote long-dead poets, is there?):

    ˘     / | ˘   /  | /   ˘ | /    ˘ | ˘  /
    The chance I take shatters hope and desire,
       ˘   / | ˘ / | ˘    / |˘ / |˘   /
    Though my intentions are forever pure.

You should be able to hear the meter “shatter” as the content does, then return immediately to the base iambic pentameter.  The effect is even stronger as the trochees come in the middle of the line with no preparation.  Had I written “destroys” instead of “shatters,” the trochaic emphasis on “hope” would still be strong, but the verb would lack its “destructive” power.

Pyrrhic and Spondaic Substitution - The Double-Iamb:

Spondees are a powerful foot in iambic meter, allowing a poet to have more stresses than feet in a line of verse.  Normally you would scan each stress as belonging to its own foot, but a spondee takes the unaccented syllable of a foot and raises its volume almost, if not all the way, to the strength of the stressed syllable, as in this line from Shakespeare’s Henry V:

      /   / | / ˘ | ˘    /   |   ˘     /   |   /   /
    Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more

When I showed this line from Paradise Lost, you probably noticed the pyrrhus and spondee at the end (even without my footnote):

    ˘     /  | ˘    /  |   ˘    /| ˘    ˘ |  /    /
    And thence in Heaven called Satan; with bold words

The pyrrhus-spondee combination usually appears with the pyrrhus first in iambic meter, as placing the spondee first would result in three unaccented syllables in a row, which nearly always results in the pyrrhus sounding like an iamb due to MCA.  When it appears as it does in this line, it is called an “ionic foot” (scanned as two feet), though I generally refer to it as a “double-iamb.”  It is quite common, and, because it is essentially two iambs, is a way for a poet to add a bit of variety to a line without deviating too greatly from an iambic base.

Anapestic Substitution:

Anapestic substitutions are often less obvious than trochees, the two unstressed syllables--essentially a stretched iamb--providing a kind of ripple in the rhythm of the poem, which is only noticeable by ear.  Consider this passage from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”:

    ˘    /  |  ˘   / | ˘ ˘   / |  ˘  /
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
    ˘   / | ˘   /  | ˘    / | ˘   /
    I took the one less traveled by

Read these lines aloud, and you’ll probably hear the difference.  Though you might want to rush over the unstressed “in a,” the individual syllables are still audible and cannot be denied.  Anapestic substitutions are generally used to extend a line to give the effect of hesitation or questioning, as Frost’s narrator hesitates briefly at the divergence of the roads to decide which to follow.

However, an anapest does not need to be so obvious, as in this line from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm”:

      ˘    / |  ˘  / | ˘ ˘ / | ˘   /
    That shift the scenery to and fro

You could almost pronounce “scenery” as a disyllable:  “scen’ry.”  Indeed, poets for many years would not use anapests that could not be justified in this way.


For as long as meter has existed, poets have sought ways to make their poems fit perfectly into their base meter and still say what they want to say.  One method of this is elision, a slurring of two syllables into one.  This generally occurs in lines where an anapestic substitution might exist, as in the above line from Poe.  Milton also used it extensively, as in these lines from Paradise Lost:

    ˘/|(˘)˘ / | ˘ / | ˘ / | ˘  /
    Immediately inordinate desires,
    ˘  / |  ˘    / |   ˘  /|(˘) ˘   /  |  ˘  /
    Behind them, while the obdurate king pursues

In the above lines, the unstressed syllables in parentheses are elided to make the line perfectly iambic:  “immed’ately,” “obd’rate.”  The apostrophe is not necessary to force elision, and is practically forgotten by contemporary poets who generally have no qualms with an anapestic substitution here and there, but elision is still widely used.  When scanning a line, whether or not you choose to elide may have a drastic effect on how you scan, or it might simply give an anapest.  When writing, you cannot force your reader to elide (without the apostrophe that immediately flags your poem as an imitation of an older style), and so you must be careful about how your line might sound with and without the elision.  You don’t want to ruin the content of your poem by forcing yourself to use a word that doesn’t fit the context, but at the same time you don’t want your reader to stumble on a line simply because you couldn’t think of another word to use.

A handful of words in English can be pronounced as either one or two syllables, depending on dialect and syntax.  “Fire,” “poem,” “smile,” “heaven,” and “tower” (and words that rhyme with them) are among these, though these last two are generally two syllables in contemporary pronunciation, and the list is certainly not limited to these few.  See below, in the section “Monosyllable or Polysyllable?” for more on this.

Catalexis & Extra-Syllable Endings

You are also not limited to exactly the number of syllables your base meter provides--sometimes a poet will omit or add a syllable to a line.  Catalexis refers to the omission of a syllable at the end of the line, while an Extra-Syllable Ending (or E.S. Ending) is exactly what its name implies:  an extra syllable at the end of the line.  And anacrusis is the addition of an unstressed syllable at the beginning of the line.

Catalexis commonly occurs in trochaic meter, such as William Blake used in “The Tyger”:

    /  ˘  | /  ˘  | /   ˘  |  /
    Tyger!  Tyger!  Burning bright
    /  ˘  | /  ˘ | /  ˘  | /
    In the forests of the night
    /   ˘ | / ˘  | /  ˘ | /
    What immortal hand or eye
    (˘) | /     ˘ |  /  ˘  | / ˘| /
    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The trochaic tetrameter of these lines gives them a powerful feeling of insistence that would not be so present if the final syllable were added.  Suppose Blake had instead written:

    / ˘  |  / ˘   |  /  ˘  | /  ˘
    Tyger!  Tyger!  Burning brightly

You should be able to read these two variations aloud and agree that the second does not sound as strong as the first.

But wait, you might say, couldn’t this be iambic tetrameter with anacrusis applied?  Indeed the last line would be iambic if I had not placed my foot divisions in such a way as to make it trochaic.  And while most syllables are definitely either stressed or unstressed, foot divisions are purely imaginary.  However, looking at the poem as a whole, which must be done to identify the base meter, I notice that only six of the twenty-four lines have eight syllables; the other eighteen lines follow the pattern of catalectic trochaic tetrameter.  The biggest clue, however, is that the poem, for the most part, does not sound iambic.  Remember that metrical poetry is meant to be heard, not read, so the sound of the line is of utmost importance.  “O tyger!  Tyger!  Burning bright” would be iambic tetrameter, but it does not have the same sound--the same feeling--as Blake’s original line.

Please note that these are always unstressed syllables that are omitted or added.  If the syllable is stressed, then it counts as a foot.


Punctuation is one key element in forcing a reader to pronounce your poem the way you want it to be pronounced.  Many punctuation marks give the reader a notification of where to pause while reading, and how long the pause is to be.  Full stops, such as a period, question mark, or exclamation point, are just what the name implies:  a full stop, finishing a complete thought and allowing the reader to pause for a moment before moving on to the next thought.  Commas are very short pauses, linking separate incomplete thoughts.  Semicolons are slightly longer than commas, and dashes and colons are somewhere between full stops and semicolons.  There is no exact amount of silent time that each punctuation mark represents; like stress, they are all relative.

For meter, a punctuation mark can, in addition to providing caesurae, insert a stress where a stress otherwise might not exist, such as in this line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Two Voices”:

      /    ˘  | ˘   / | ˘    / | ˘   /
    When, wide in soul and bold of tongue

Without the comma, I would scan this line as follows:

    </code>  ˘   /  | ˘   / | ˘    / | ˘   / When wide in soul and bold of tongue</code>

The comma, as you can see, makes “When” stand alone, a more important word than it would be if it were linked seamlessly with the rest of the line.  Commas can also be used to insert spondees, as William Shakespeare shows in Macbeth:

    ˘   / | ˘   / | ˘   / | ˘   / | ˘   /
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    ˘   / | ˘  /| ˘   /  |   /    /  |  ˘    / |(˘)
    The way to dusty death.  Out, out, brief candle!

Given the punctuation, it is extremely unlikely that the two “out”s are not stressed equally.  Not only are they separated by commas, but they are part of an exclamation, as noted by the punctuation at the end of the line.  It would be quite difficult, if not impossible, to argue in favor of an iamb instead of a spondee there.

Another method of punctuation forcing meter, as we saw above in the section on elision, is to use an apostrophe to remove a syllable from a word.  The opposite of this is to use an accent mark on a vowel (usually an è) to signify that the vowel is a part of its own syllable.  We can see both in this line from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

      ˘    /| ˘ / | ˘  / | ˘     / | ˘    /
    Hence-banishèd is banish’d from the world

The original word, “banished,” has been modified to force the reader to pronounce it differently each time.  The first, “banishèd,” is pronounced as a trisyllable, while the second, “banish’d,” is a disyllable.  Had Shakespeare used the original form of the word each time, we would have to decide which pronunciation to use; today “banished” is usually pronounced as two syllables, which would make the line iambic tetrameter with an anapest in the second foot, breaking the base iambic pentameter.  This technique is not generally used anymore, however, and the contemporary poet should only consider it when mimicking Elizabethan verse.

Monosyllable or Polysyllable?

A handful of words in English have an ambiguous number of syllables, depending on context and dialect.  I can’t hope to give a full list of them, but they include such words as “hour,” “poem,” “fire,” “heaven,” “tower,” “smile,” “spoil,” and words that rhyme with these.  When using one of these words, it is up to you as the poet how many syllables you will give it, usually by utilizing the base meter to force the reader’s pronunciation.  Look at the pronunciation of “fire” in these two passages:

    /  ˘  | /  ˘  |  /   ˘ |  /  ˘
    Double, double, toil and trouble,
    /˘  | /   ˘ |  /  ˘ |  /  ˘
    Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

      ˘     / | ˘  /  | ˘   /  |  ˘    / |˘   /
    There stood a hill not far, whose grisly top
       ˘     /  | ˘   / | ˘    /  |  ˘   / |  ˘ /
    Belched fire and rolling smoke; the rest entire

In each of these examples, the base meter causes “fire” to have a different pronunciation, first as a disyllable, then as a monosyllable.  Both of these are correct, though generally a poet will want to have the pronunciation of each word in a particular poem be uniform, so would not use both forms in the same piece.

As we saw in the section on punctuation, it is possible to force your reader into a specific pronunciation in ways other than simply using the base meter.  Centuries ago, poets began using words like “o’er” (instead of “over”) and “ere” (instead of “before) to keep their base meter and still say what they wanted to say.  Because metrical substitutions are more accepted now than they were then, these sorts of contractions aren’t often used anymore, and always redirect a reader’s mind to the older poetic forms.  Use them at your own risk.

Closing Comments

There are many accepted methods of changing the meter of your poem for effect, to avoid the monotonous repetition on a wholly regular meter, or simply to use the exact word or phrase required to say what you want to say.  These deviations should never be used without a deliberate purpose behind them, but when they are used intentionally and purposefully, they can bring a powerful effect to specific points in your poetry.

Scansion Exercises 2

Scan the following lines and identify any metrical deviations (substitutions, catalexis, etc.) they contain (Hint:  There may be more than one in a particular line):

    1.  And neither the angels in heaven above - Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee” 2.  Fierce as a comet; which with torrid heat - John Milton, “Paradise Lost” 3.  Like all created things, secrets from me - Alice Meynell, “To a Daisy” 4.  He cleaned out that icebox as quick as a flash - Dr. Seuss, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” 5.  Holding his pocket handkerchief - Lewis Carroll, “The Walrus and the Carpenter” 6.  "Courage!" he said, and pointed toward the land - Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Lotus-Eaters” 7.  When they found him with the dead - Oscar Wilde, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” 8.  how children are apt to forget to remember - E.E. Cummings, “anyone lived in a pretty how town”

Writing Assignment 2 - BLANK VERSE REVISITED

You know how to write immaculate iambic pentameter, and now you know how to effectively deviate from that meter.  So let’s do it.  Again, ten to fifteen lines of iambic pentameter, but at least half of those lines need to have some form of metrical deviation.  Also, once again, don’t bother trying to rhyme--that’s coming up in Lesson 3.  And the subject matter, as always, is entirely your choice.
    Impromptu Sample:
      Because you know how to write iambic verse, And since there’s so much more to poetry Outside of basic metrical design, I want to see how well you can break away. Writing a poem is not an easy task When you need to find a way to make it work Without breaking the meter that you chose-- Or rather, the one chosen for your use. But you can do it; I have faith in you I believe that you can do this if you try. It might take some time, but it will be worth the wait To have control of meter in your poems.
Sorry to have been so long in getting this posted. I'm finally out of school (almost) for winter break, so hopefully I'll have more time to get more lessons posted in the near future.
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